Last week TechRaptor had a chance to talk with Michael Hadwin, the Director of Games, Publishing, and Development at Rooster Teeth. Rooster Teeth is a company that many will know from popular machinima series Red vs Blue and their hit animated show RWBY, which just began its fifth season. On top of that, Rooster Teeth also creates live-action shorts, films, video game lets plays, tabletop games, and has been steadily building up their games department to not only publish in-house titles like RWBY: Grimm Eclipse (check out our interview on that here) but also external indie titles.
TechRaptor: Starting off for those who might not be as familiar with your career as an art director, I did some digging and you've got a lot of impressive titles across Halo: Master Chief Collection, DC Universe Online, Epic Mickey, and even back to Duke Nukem 3D, but I was wondering what was your favorite game to work on?
Michael Hadwin: Oh wow, umm, out of those huh?
TR: Well out of any game you've worked on
MH: Well that's the unfortunate thing about being in the game biz for long, I've been doing this for I think 24 years now and you end up working on games for sometimes 2-3 years and they get cancelled because of something out of your control, somebody decides we don't need this kind of game anymore or whatever else. So it would be a game that I under NDA couldn't even talk about. Umm, ya know what, I guess I could say Duke Nukem 3D because that was my first game in the industry and I was just so excited to be apart of 3D Realms and what was happening there. It wasn't quite 3D yet, it was like 2D and a half, 2.5D, if you remember the first Duke Nukem. It wasn't quite 3D yet so Quake was the one that came out as true 3D so, I mean that was a magical time for me in the late 90s there working at a big game studio man, I'd made it and was having a blast.
Just to kind of give you some clarity on my role there was actually in advertising before I got into games because I thought "There's no way I could get into the games industry, you know?" and actually back then it wasn't like a career choice that people would take there were just a bunch of weirdos that would make games, it wasn't like a degree in college where you could go and actually study as you can now. So I didn't ever think I would even fall into that so I went into advertising and that's how I kinda snuck in the backdoor of 3D Realms is I was doing marketing and I'd done a bunch of game related stuff and they kinda sought me out and said "We're working on this game called Duke Nukem, do you want to help us market and advertise it?" and so I was like "Yeah, sure why not?" Inside I was freaking out.
So I came on as an art director to help with all the marketing and advertising, but then once I'd gotten into the belly of the beast, I began learning all I could about game development from animation to coding to all of it. I just dove in, so yeah, in a long roundabout way of telling you those are some of my fondest memories, since then it's just been nothing but hell. But no, that's not true but you know sometimes you do something long enough you begin to know the patterns, like "ok, now we're doing this thing, and okay now we're doing this thing, and next is going to come this thing" so yeah, I guess it would probably be Duke Nukem because again it would be a whole new brand beginning for me and I felt we were on the cusp of the game industry becoming a real industry, before that it has always been like, ya know arcade games and consoles but it wasn't quite what it was until the late 90s and 2000s when—anyway, exciting times.
TR: Yeah, of course. Then in 2015, you joined Rooster Teeth as Director of Games, Publishing, and Development. Was that something that came out of the blue or was that through previous connections made through working on Halo or other titles?
MH: That's actually a really interesting story. I was running an animation studio here in Austin, where Rooster Teeth is located, and we were doing a lot of cinematic and commercial work. I had kinda taken a bit of a hiatus, a sabbatical if you will, from the games industry and I'd decided "Hey I want to get into animation and film stuff" and so I was running a little company called MegaSquad and I got a client, GameStop, and we were going to do a commercial, I don't know if you remember the Gamestop commercials where they would have like machinima based, where they would have either NFL Madden players saying funny things, which is what Rooster Teeth does, they had this whole series and then they wanted to do something completely original like "we'd love to do something a bit of our own" and at that time Rooster Teeth didn't have their own animation department, which seems kinda crazy to think now.
They contracted my little company and that's how I met Matt and Burnie, the guys who run Rooster Teeth, and we worked together on that Gamestop commercial and we just kinda hit it off. Those guys are awesome and you know I was actually kinda new to the whole Rooster Teeth thing but then I became a fan because the more we worked together the more I understood kinda what these guys were doing. So from that point that was like 2007 or 2008, one of those, we just kinda kept up over the years. Matt and Burnie, every now and then, we'd run into each other or I'd get an email from somebody and were like "Hey man, one of these days we want to do games" or maybe they were asking me for consultation like "Hey, what would you do here?" That led to I was in a position where I was looking for something new, I'd just shipped Halo: Master Chief Collection and it was a bit of a grueling project—that's a whole other interview—but it was fun to work on but when you get to that level of AAA almost AAAA it's just a bit crazy and overwhelming. I have two kids now and found myself like I'm working 60 hour weeks and it just didn't make any sense for me anymore and so I ended up having lunch with Matt from Rooster Teeth, and he was like "Hey man, well we have this fan who made this RWBY game, well it's not a whole game just kinda a demo and we think we want to move forward with this. We think we want somebody like you to come and help us really turn this little demo that he's done". He was a student at the time, he was like 19, but he'd done it all himself, "but we think there's something there, there's like a seed of a good idea in this game, so would you be interested in maybe finally joining Rooster Teeth and helping us build a games division" and again I was super excited and was like "yeah, that sounds fun".
So I jumped at the opportunity and again it was like 2 years ago and so my first mission was to take that demo that some kid, I keep calling him a kid he was 19, and I built a team, we ended up ramping ourselves up to 8 employees which isn't really large if you know anything about game development we kind of pulled off the impossible. We took his demo, we ended up adding a lot more levels, characters, story and effects and all the things that make a real game a retail product. We put that together in less than six months, we launched it on Steam Early Access and then we worked 6 months past that to shape things up, adding new content, listening to the audience. A lot of times they wanted us to do things that were far outside the scope of what we'd planned but we tried to listen to the community and give them what they wanted and then eventually we ended up launching it about 6 months later, around July of 2016 I want to say. Then we followed it up with the console versions the following January on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
The game's done really great for us it was a great way to start off my career here at Rooster Teeth, the games been crazy successful and I got a great team. I love my guys, we're still very small we're only 10, we've only grown a little bit and over the course of next year, I'm hoping we're somewhere in the 20's. Just to get it out I know this is a question you're going to give me but to give you an idea of what we're going to do and the path that we're on we're not trying to compete with the Halo's of the world. We would rather focus on smaller, kinda AA title games, that at the core of it is just a fun game. Yes as an artist and Art Director I want things to look beautiful and have a high quality but we're really just focused on maybe it's a smaller experience but bang for buck it's a great product and maybe our audience likes it. As you know Rooster Teeth is so community focused we want to make sure we're making content that our community loves and we're not just making our own little passion projects here so that's what the future holds for us. I can't really talk about it because we're not ready to share things yet but we're working on something new in-house now that we've got the RWBY game done. We're working on something new and we're super excited about it and if you ask me a year from now what my favorite game is hopefully it will be this one I'm working on now. Again I'm kind of back in the position of working on something with a small team working on something that's manageable and I feel like it's going to be really special. Hopefully, our audience will like it too. We'll talk in a year and hopefully, I'll be able to fill you in.
TR: Yeah of course, well I was going to say since its release there has been additional characters and costume DLC and was wondering if there was going to be any more additional content for RWBY: Grimm Eclipse, but I guess we'll save that question for a year from now.
MH: Yeah, on Grimm Eclipse we've reached a point were we're continuing support but do we continue to push new DLC for the game we don't necessarily know if our audience really wants? We don't think they want anything else they have to pay for. Or do we spend that time thinking about what's next for RWBY which is something, without revealing too much, we're always thinking about "If we were to do the next RWBY game what would that be?" and it's probably going to be a lot larger than what we did the first time. We feel like we were trying to make a game when we had an idea of what we were going for, but of course, our fans were like "Oh we want something so much larger." We've had a lot of internal discussion of "If we were to do another RWBY game what would it be?" so that may be a much larger endeavor which would mean spending more time and hopefully that answers your question.
TR: Yeah definitely, so in RWBY Grimm Eclipse whose your favorite of the characters to play when you get a chance?
MH: Oh gosh, I like Yang just because she's a bruiser, she's all brawn.
TR: Gets in and kicks ass?
MH: Yeah and she's funny, I relate to Yang's humor. But you know I like Blake too because I like those dark moody brunettes but you know I like them all. Weiss is the only one that feels, I don't know, the sister that you're always in an argument with.
TR: And so another recent turn for RT games was the swap to publishing, or publishing external titles as well as your own in-house titles. So what was the decision-making process behind that? was that something that was always in the wings waiting for the right projects, or was it a more complicated decision?
MH: No, it was something that came out of, again the need for our community, like I mentioned we're a small team and so we can only do so much per year. So Matt, Burnie, myself and a few others were like "What could we do to start cranking out more products because [the audience] just chews it up anytime we put something out." I've never been at a company like this that produces so much content but the instant we put something out [the audience] is like "What's next?" At the games department, we started thinking well what could we do unless I ran my team up to 100 people working on 3 games a year, which is pretty risky?
There are so many great games that are happening out there in the indie world, what if we just find some of those and if they match well with our audience? Let's help them, put them on a pedestal, use the power of the Rooster Teeth brand and help them get some exposure, hopefully, bring some more people into our audience and just kind of where the seed of where that idea came from. You have to realize that this time it was just me, still trying to run it as an internal studio but also trying to manage all of the publishing stuff that was happening. Typical Rooster Teeth we were like "Oh, we'll do it all!" we were very ambitious here and not afraid of challenges. What I'm getting at is I realized very quickly that if we're going to do this we'd probably need to get some infrastructure in place and some people thinking about this 8 hours a day whereas I was kind of splitting my time, I'd give it 2 hours here and 3 hours there, which led to hiring David Eddings.
David comes from Gearbox, we have known each other for many years, we've just kind of through different companies bump into each other. We've become good friends and he certainly built up a great company there at Gearbox and was also helping to get Gearbox publishing off the ground so when he heard what we were doing here at Rooster Teeth the stars kind of aligned. It was good timing for him, so now David is kind of pushing forward with that which is good because it takes that weight off me and allows me to focus more on our internal development stuff. The goal at the end of the day is still the same, we want to find great games that indies are out there working hard on, that may or may not ever see the light of day because it's so competitive.
Imagine working at an indie studio and it's only you and three other guys and you're making this game that you think is going to change the world but you put it out and no one ever hears about it. That's the problem with making games nowadays, just it's an awareness problem, you can have the greatest game in the world but if no one has ever heard of it your kind of wasting your time. So that's what we're doing, we're trying to be the big brother or the good samaritan here. We're trying to find indies that we're like "This is a great game man, and you know what, our fans would love it and we love it. Let's help bring this game some exposure." It's not really like we're looking for something that will affect the bottom line, we just want to bring more cool stuff to our audience.
TR: Like trying to find something that the audience will enjoy and make it easier for them to find?
MH: Right, yeah. So that's still the goal and David has only been with the company for a couple of months now and he's still trying to get settled in and a foundation built but he's also gotten a couple of new prospects in the horizon for games. I guess I should back up a bit and also say we already did publish a game, it was Battlesloths 2025: The Great Pizza Wars which is probably going to happen in a few years where sloths take over the world fighting over pizza.
TR: That's understandable, at the moment they're just biding their time building up the energy to go fast and get pizza.
MH: That's why they're sleeping, exactly, they're just saving energy for the upcoming apocalypse. But we've published that game and it's done well with our audience, they loved it, we're actually planning some promotions coming up here pretty soon. A couple of our talents are going to play online, big secret don't tell anybody, but we're hoping to maybe bring that to console later but that was just the first in what's hopefully more smaller indie titles. That one specifically was literally done with some indies during their off time cause they're working in the day, they're working for EA or Activision or Bungie, and they're working on that game at night. There was a couple of full-time guys but for the most part, it was a distributed team, as indie as it gets.
They were great to work with, I think their sloth characters are amazing, it feels like a stoner version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is another good point that's as we're out there looking for independent properties us being an animation studio we're always looking for new ideas. I think it would be great if one day, you know this is definitely not a confirmation, I'm just saying like wouldn't it be cool if we were able to take something like Battlesloths IP and make a Saturday morning cartoon about these crazy sloths that are fighting for the pizza of the future. That's the kind of thing we're looking for when we're out there trying to find new games and properties. Will our audience like this? is there potential to possibly turn this into an animated show or a live action movie or whatever?
TR: I guess that's just another benefit of the entertainment behemoth that Rooster Teeth has become nowadays? That you can publish Battlesloths and you see Achievement Hunter play it and RT Animation could potentially think about making a show about it
MH: Yup yup, we actually did a trailer where we had our in-house animation department, the team from Camp Camp took like a week and a half and they made this badass animated trailer for Battlesloths in a very, you know, Saturday morning cartoon style. As you say it's not only game publishing with Rooster Teeth there's that added benefit of if this goes well we could potentially turn this into a show. On the publishing side of things it's also important to note that one of the other secret weapons we have here, is that it used to be when I was first in games it was about how could I get on the cover of PCGamer or EDGE Magazine.
That used to be the goal as a developer because that was exposure for your game, now it has changed because it's "How can I get Achievement Hunter or Funhaus, or Creatures, or Cowchop or anyone else in our Let's Play Network to play my game online because that's going to give it so much more exposure?" for us here at Rooster Teeth I'm sitting on a goldmine. I realise as I made games hopefully Achievement Hunter likes it and they can play my game and they give it more exposure, that's something we can offer to anyone we publish their games with. Like with Battlesloths Achievement Hunter played it, Funhaus played it, Kinda Funny played it and that's just pure gold in the modern world of game publishing. Certainly another advantage that we have.
TR: How did you first get in contact with Invisible Collective who developed Battlesloths? Was that you seeking them out, or was that them reaching out to you?
MH: They're here in Austin and they were really active with the indie scene, here in Austin every third Sunday of every month we have an event called Juegos Rancheros, a big gaming event, and they were showing off their game there and we bumped into them. We were like "What's this silly game about sloths with big guns, like what is this?" we ended up playing with it, meeting the guys, and that was just the beginning of the relationship. We then saw them again at South by Southwest, and then again at another event, and the more we talked the more we played the game we were like "Hey man, I'm going to show this game to Achievement Hunter" so they thought it was fun.
Then that just led to, again we were considering this publishing thing, and it all just kind of came together and like "Hey, well maybe Battlesloths? It's a small game, not like some huge game we would have to put like millions of dollars into marketing behind." It was essentially our first date to the prom and we had a lot of fun with it. Those guys are great, we love all the guys from Invisible Collective, really good guys. In fact, the EP on Battlesloths, Randy Greenback, is also the EP on Friday the 13th, the new game, so these guys are legit veteran developers they're just working on some small indie stuff on the side. Pretty cool.
TR: So now between the developing, and publishing in your free time what games are you currently playing or looking forward to?
MH: Oh wow, umm, yeah my time is definitely at a minimum these days. I'm still trying to get through the last Uncharted, uh Uncharted 4. I'm like so close to finishing that game but I have to finish it. I tend to now always be a bit behind with my games, you know everyone's always telling me "Oh, you've got to play this game" and then I'll play it like 4,5, or 6 months later. I just played Alien Isolation, I like that a lot. I actually like stupid games I can play with my kid like Overcooked. That's actually probably one of my favorite games right now just because it's fast and frantic and I can jump in for 20 minutes and play a game and then I've got other things I need to do.
But I guess just to put it, in a nutshell, I like narrative games, I'm a big movie buff so if I can play a game that feels like a move I'm in. Anything from Naughty Dog, I really enjoyed The Order 1886, a lot of people trashed that game but I thought it was amazing. Definitely from a visual standpoint but I thought it was engaging and there was a nice mixture of action sequences and storytelling and all that.
TR: So the video game equivalent of the page turner?
MH: Yeah, exactly. It's funny because I actually like thrillers if I'm going to read a book I want it to thrill. Something where I can't put it down.
TR: Then a last thing that I like to ask, for those aspiring game developers and artists out there what advise do you think you could give them on starting out on their journey and is there anything that you wish you knew at the beginning which would have been great to be able to go back and tell yourself?
MH: I think it would be what I tell all up and coming game developers who are in school, I get this question a lot, and my best piece of advice for them is to just make something and share it with a community whether that be forums that you hang out in, or Reddit, or wherever it is. Wherever you think people that you respect their feedback because you know there will be a lot of trolls out there, make stuff and share it, get feedback, and then try again. Just keep doing that because a lot of times, I mean schools are getting better with their programs, but there's a lot of times even 15 years ago kids would say "I know how to make art" but they didn't know how that applies to game development, and what are the process and the pipeline.
You learn so much just by making things, and now there's no excuse Unity is free, Unreal is free and there's plenty of other game engines that you can choose from so it's like download it, watch a tutorial, make a box move from left to right, BOOM, hey guess what? you have a skill that other people don't have you know, you can say "I can make a box move left to right in Unreal" that sounds crazy but sometimes you need to just start there. So yeah I guess again, the long and short of it is make stuff, share it online, get feedback, rinse repeat because I think a lot of it, just like the kid I talked about earlier, that's exactly what he did.
He was in high school and he was already kind of tinkering around with game engines and learning stuff, watching tutorials, and he just started making fan games. He made a Pokemon game that was really really popular, of course, he can't own Pokemon, he can't sell it, but he just made a demo and put it out online and people loved it. Again there's always trolls but he learned a lot from that, and then he made maybe one other before he started on a RWBY fan game which is what got him noticed by Rooster Teeth. So there you go that's a perfect example of if you want to make games for a living well guess what, start making some. If you can't do it all, if you're not a coder then find a buddy. nowadays everything is online and distributed, you don't even need to be in the same timezones, well it would be helpful but there's plenty of people who are programmers in Russia and you can say "Hey I'll do the art and you can code". There are communities out there that that is happening. Hopefully, that answers your question.
TR: Yeah definitely. So if anyone wanted to keep following you and Rooster Teeth games how would they go about that?
MH: Ah, well so we have a Twitter account, unfortunately we're not as active as we probably should be because we're all so focused on making things but our Twitter account is @OfficialRTGames and there's our website where our current catalog of games is on and then me personally, my Twitter handle is @MPHadwin, my mom was cool like that and gave me the cool initials of MPH. We're actually looking for a community manager to help us at RT games because it is important that someone is constantly talking to the community and asking them what they want and just talking about games and being excited and that's something that we kind of need because, as I said we're a bunch of nerds that are just trying to make games and every now and then we're like "Oh, maybe we should try talking with the community?" so anyway, just something that we definitely need to find ourselves a good community manager whose helping us to get the word out about that.
TechRaptor would once again like to thank Michael Hadwin and Rooster Teeth for providing us with this opportunity.